A jumping mouse point counterpoint

November 11, 2017 | By DAMIEN SCHIFF

Earlier this year, we submitted, on behalf of a coalition of scientists and property rights advocates, a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse from the Endangered Species Act. Our petition argues that delisting is warranted because the mouse’s “subspecies” designation—hotly contested for over a decade—has been further called into question by a 2013 study authored by Jason Malaney and Joseph Cook, researchers at the University of New Mexico.  The Malany & Cook study concludes that the putative Preble’s meadow subspecies is actually quite similar to a large population of jumping mouse that extends northward into Canada. Our petition therefore argues that, once the jumping mouse’s status is analyzed with reference to this larger population, it becomes clear that the mouse is not in danger of extinction and thus landowners need no longer be saddled with onerous land-use restrictions imposed on account of the mouse’s listing.

Not surprisingly, the environmental community sharply disagrees with our viewpoint. In fact, earlier this week the Center for Biological Diversity submitted its own jumping mouse petition to the Service. In a somewhat unusual move, CBD’s petition criticizes our petition even before the Service has made an initial finding as to whether delisting may be warranted. And for good measure, CBD’s petition asks the Service, if the agency is otherwise inclined to agree with our arguments against the mouse’s subspecies classification, to redesignate the same mouse population as a “distinct population segment” under the Act, thereby preserving the mouse’s protections.

Although a blog post is not the best forum to engage in legal or scientific debate, allow me to respond to the two principal criticisms from CBD’s petition.

First, CBD’s petition contends that our petition has misrepresented the import of the Malaney & Cook study:  “[T]he [PLF] petition fails to mention . . . that the referenced study explicitly states that ‘[a]dditional tests will be required before hypotheses of intraspecific taxonomic synonymy can be implemented,’ and that a revised taxonomy of the group ‘is outside the context of this study’ (quoting Malaney & Cook 2013). Of course, CBD is absolutely correct that the study does not essay a new taxonomic regime for jumping mice. But that does not mean that the study considers taxonomic revision to be unwarranted. To the contrary, after demonstrating that “the lineage including the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse [is] part of a single lineage that is ecologically indistinct and extends to the far north,” the study asserts that its findings “lead[] to a radically different view of geographical structure within jumping mice and indicates the need to re-evaluate their taxonomy and management.”

Second, CBD’s petition asserts that “the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already reviewed the status of Preble’s taking into account this new study in a five year review completed in 2014, determining the ‘best available information indicates that the Preble’s is a genetically and geographically distinct subspecies of jumping mouse.’” (quoting USFWS 2014). Again, CBD is certainly correct that the Service reviewed the Malaney & Cook study as part of its five-year status review of the mouse. But the status review’s analysis amounts to a cursory paragraph, and concludes, rather unconvincingly, that nothing need be done because the Malaney & Cook study “did not propose to revise the formal taxonomy of Preble’s or any of the other subspecies of jumping mice.” But certainly, a study can show that a taxonomic classification is unsound without also suggesting a comprehensive replacement classification. Moreover, as CBD is surely aware, the analytical burden on the Service in responding to petitions from outside parties is substantially more rigorous than that for completing internal agency status reviews. In other words, there would be nothing inconsistent between the 2014 status review and a finding in response to our delisting petition that the Malaney & Cook study represents substantial scientific information indicating that delisting may be warranted, which is the statutory standard. Indeed, even in the 2014 status review itself, the Service conceded that “Malaney and Cook’s (2013) recent study raises questions regarding the Preble’s taxonomic validity.”